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From the archives: The Christian Menace

In October 1980, Dr. Ralph McInerny, one of my personal heroes, wrote an article for Notre Dame’s Scholastic Magazine. It is well worth reading, and I have copied it below:

Screen Shot 2013-02-07 at 2.40.20 PMAt the joint press conference held by Ronald Reagan and John Anderson in Baltimore, Soma Golden of the New York Times raised the issue of all these crazy Christians meddling in politics. She was particularly incensed by the letter Cardinal Medeiros of Boston had sent to priests and people reminding them of the Church’s judgment on abortion. The scarcely concealed rage with which Soma put the question indicated the seriousness with which secular humanists regard the Christian menace. It was not only Ms. Golden’s name that put me in mind of Brave New World.

John Anderson handled the question by concentrating on the issue of abortion, more or less avoiding the reference to arrant clerics. His position is just the sort of nonsense I suppose Cardinal Madeiros was blowing the whistle on. Anderson is personally against abortion, but he does not wish to inflict his views on anybody else. One wonders what causes Anderson to be personally against abortion. Because it is wrong? Because it is the taking of innocent human life? If so, he ought to have the same reservations about laws against homicide and theft. Reagan, as we have come to expect gave a straightforward answer to the question, an answer a Christian can live with.

Since that soi-disant debate we have been inundated by article; and programs warning us of the threat posed by the fundamentalist born-again evangelicals who are presuming to appraise the political scene-issues and candidates-in the light of their beliefs. Dan Rather did a Job on them; there were similar somewhat less hostile reports on the other networks. And now Monsignor George Higgins has written about the matter in America much to Carl Rowan’s relief; the latter quotes the former with unction when he warns pro-lifers that they must beware .of being taken over by the rIght wing. Apparently clerics can meddle in politics if they say the right thing.

What surprised me was that neither of the candidates replied to Soma Golden’s question by reminding her of the role that the clergy played in the Civil Rights Movement. It has long been recognized that if blacks had waited for politicians to rectify their plight, they would still be waiting. Politicians and the rest of us were awakened and persuaded not by legal or constitutional arguments but by the open appeal to our religious beliefs. How could a Christian in conscience give in to racial prejudice? It was not the ideal of secular humanism but the JudaeoChristian ethic that brought about the. change in law and the change in attItude. I think it goes without saying that when Soma Golden warns about meddling clerics she does not have Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, or Jesse Jackson in mind. And whatever the compatibility of civil rIghts with secular humanism secular humanism, scarcely provides the motive we need to effect a change in our life and outlook.

I am suggesting that the inconsistency of the Rathers and Goldens and Rowans indicates that they are really not against the Church being involved in politics or believers assessing the public scene in light of theIr religious beliefs. When the bishops of Holland (along with the leaders of various Protestant denominations) protested the deportation of Jews in 1942, they were doing something appropriate and praiseworthy, even though it led to the roundup within days of all Jews who had become Christians. It is arguable that Edith Stein would not have perished at Auschwitz if the churchmen had remained silent. One can recognize that there is a right and duty for churchmen to speak out on political matters while at the same time noticing that there are times when it might be unwise to exercise that right. Furthermore, churchmen can exercise that right in saying stupid things.

Thus, I suggest that (a) the current criers of alarm actually accept the right of churchmen to speak out on political matters; they just do not like what some churchmen are currently saying and wish to oppose them by invoking a principle they themselves do not accept. Further, (b) churchmen may exercise the right and cause consequences they do not intend and cannot be held responsible for; and (c) not just anything a churchman says about political matters merits respect.

By and large, political issues do not present alternatives such that one is manifestly at variance with religious belief. That is why, I suspect, we are somewhat surprised when clerics speak out on matters which are religiously neutral. This is not to say, of course, that the believer ought not see all things through the lens of faith. But faith does not often necessitate one judgment rather than the other, which is why believers are normally found throughout the political spectrum. But there are issues where one alternative is manifestly incompatible with religious belief, with Judaism, with Christianity. Even here, as in the example of the Dutch bishops of yore, prudence could dictate silence rather than protest. Cardinal Madeiros’s letter, like that of the Dutch bishops in 1942, did not have the result he might have wished, but that surely does not vitiate what he said.

The problem nowadays is that secular humanists want to dictate the issues which are beyond the range of episcopal appraisal. But this is not for them to say. They may wish to think of public funding of abortions and the dissemination of contraceptives as morally neutral, but they are wrong. All things being equal, a believer would be stupid to vote for a man who would back or implement policies which are contrary to fundamental Christian beliefs. Martin Luther King. would have been mad if he voted for a segregationist and I doubt that he would have accepted the notion that his conception of equality was a private opinion that could not be publicly implemented.

Screen Shot 2013-02-07 at 2.50.30 PMChristians concerned about abortion are being taken over by right-wingers. There are those who would reply that Monsignor Higgins was long ago taken over by the left wing, and indeed there is a consistent similarity between the views he has taken over the years and the views of political liberals. In a more extreme case, many feel that liberation theologians are adopting (and being adopted by) Marxism, an outlook incompatible with Christianity. If Monsignor Higgins has a point, and he does, it should be generalized. While a Christian might be a conservative or a liberal-though not a Marxist-he would be wrong to equate his political outlook with what Christianity demands of its adherents in the political order. One who identifies being a political conservative and being a Christian is exactly as wrong as he who identifies being a political liberal and being a Christian. Like Soma Golden, Monsignor Higgins seems unaware that the accusation he makes can be directed against himself.

No doubt Christians who are liberal politically have a problem when the only candidate who opposes public funding of abortions is a political conservative. It is difficult to see how their judgment that another candidate is more congenial on most other issues can be traded off against his being wrong on this massively important one. Single-issue politics? Perhaps. This recently coined scare phrase would aptly capture what would have been right and Christian in Nazi Germany and in the case of civil rights in the United States. Once more, we see that it is not single-issue politics that bothers secular humanists, but the single issue that many believers now feel takes precedence over all the others.

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